The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf

Jewish Culture and Identity Between the Lines

Marat Grinberg

The book’s main argument is that in an environment where Judaism had been all but destroyed, and a public Jewish presence routinely delegitimized, reading uniquely provided for many Soviet Jews an entry to communal memory and identity. The bookshelf was both a depository of selective Jewish knowledge and often the only conspicuously Jewish presence in their homes. The typical Soviet Jewish “bookshelf” consisted of a few translated works from Hebrew and numerous translations from Yiddish and German as well as Russian books with both noticeable and subterranean Jewish content. Such volumes, officially published, and not intended solely for a Jewish audience, afforded an opportunity for Soviet Jews to indulge insubordinate feelings in a largely safe manner. Unlike the earlier or more recent investigations of Jewishness in Soviet literary contexts, which identified “Jewish Themes” in and “Jewish Contributions” to Soviet literature on a biographical basis, this project is concerned with pinpointing or even decoding the complex reading strategies and the specifically Jewish uses to which the books on the Soviet Jewish bookshelf were put, which means that not only Jews read them, but only Jews read them in a specific way.

Paper: $40 | E-book: $39.95
ISBN-13: 9781684581313
Pages: 284 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: March 1, 2023

“Superbly researched and lucidly argued, The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf makes a convincing case for the formation of a unique Soviet Jewish identity through subversive and generative reading practices… Grinberg’s book bears witness to a community’s heroic struggle to survive against impossible odds.”

Helena I. Gurfinkel, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


  • Soviet Jews were the People of the Book. Denied all access to Scripture, they turned their bookshelves into major memory sites, fashioning a personal and collective identity out of historical fiction, science fiction, poetry, children’s verse, memoirs, travelogues, translations from Yiddish and modern Hebrew, and even anti-Zionist propaganda. Here is the untold story of their ongoing, multigenerational struggle for self-determination as told by a native son with great clarity, thoroughness, and empathy. Were this not enough, Marat Grinberg has also redefined Jewish literature as that which a living polity has rescued through conscious acts of creative rereading.

    David G. Roskies
    Sol & Evelyn Henkind Emeritus Professor of Yiddish Literature and Culture, The Jewish Theological Seminary
  • What made Soviet Jews Jewish? Superbly researched and lucidly argued, The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf makes a convincing case for the formation of a unique Soviet Jewish identity through subversive and generative reading practices. The eponymous bookshelf, an important material and intellectual feature of the Soviet Jewish home, was capacious enough to hold a variety of texts, from Leon Feuchtwanger’s sweeping historical novels, to Alexandra Burshtein’s and Lev Kassil’s coming-of-age tales, and the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction. Soviet Jews mined the contents of the shelf for references to Jewishness—overt and oblique, empowering and disparaging—to bolster a sense of selfhood and peoplehood. Over and above making a significant scholarly contribution, Grinberg’s book bears witness to a community’s heroic struggle to survive against impossible odds.

    Helena I. Gurfinkel
    Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Marat Grinberg’s original and engaging study locates the core of Russian-Jewish identity not in a particular language or religious faith, but in a canon of treasured books, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and a practice of reading ‘between the lines.’ Along the way, he offers provocative new interpretations of Soviet and non-Soviet classics alike.

    Adrian Wanner
    Pennsylvania State University
  • (An) informative, engagingly written work that... pairs thorough research with the personal reading experiences of the author and those close to him.

    LA Review of Books
  • Undoubtedly — as Marat Grinberg states — we can and should talk about the existence of Soviet Jewish culture which, although very heterogeneous, was nevertheless capable of struggling to organize, recreate and preserve its own Jewish self. The author of the book has therefore achieved his goal — to break the silence around Wiesel’s silent Jews.

    Iudaica Russia
  • Marat Grinberg conveys with special power the way in which Soviet Jews embraced the Russian literary tradition... We live in an age when totalitarian ways of thinking are on the rise and anti-Semitism has again begun to flourish. If we are to combat these trends, we must understand them. That is why I am grateful to Kirsch and Grinberg for a dialogue that has advanced my own understanding considerably.

    Mosaic Magazine
  • Marat Grinberg’s “The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf” is mandatory reading for students of Soviet and Jewish history. There is also much in it for the larger Jewish reading public for whom Soviet Jews remain a paradox, a story that is not merely of survival, but also of fashioning a durable path to Jewishness uniquely their own.

    Jewish Journal

About the Author

Marat Grinberg

Marat Grinberg came to Reed College in 2006 and is professor of Russian and Humanities. He received his BAs in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and in Modern Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999, and his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago in 2006. He is a specialist in 20th century Russian literature and culture, with an emphasis on Soviet poetry, modern Jewish literature, culture, and politics, and post-war …

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